The death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the first and only Catholic president, continues to haunt us and still yields new fascination despite the nearly five decades that have passed.
In fact, along with 9/11, it is the event that most jarred us.
Was the President killed by a lone gunman? Was there a conspiracy? If there was a conspiracy, who was behind it?
A recent book by Catholic James W. Douglass presents incredible information linking the slaying to the Central Intelligence Agency. We have wondered about this before. But before we get to that are some extremely interesting bits of information of a spiritual nature.
Few know that JFK and Nikita Khrushchev were on the verge of a major breakthrough in ending the Cold War when he was killed -- and that a secret third party to the effort was Pope John XXIII. Once militantly anti-Communist, JFK, it seems, was on the path to reconciliation -- one guided by the Vatican. This was the president who came closest -- during the Cuban Missile Crisis -- to nuclear war, but who bucked the military, C.I.A., and other hawks. Behind the scenes was a president who despite famous flaws had a spiritual and even prophetic side.
"On Sunday morning, October 28, after Kennedy and Khrushchev had agreed mutually to withdraw their most threatening missiles, JFK went to Mass in Washington to pray in thanksgiving," writes Douglass in the massively detailed book, JFK and the Unspeakable. "As he and [aide] Dave Powers were about to get into the White House car, Kennedy looked at Powers and said, 'Dave, this morning we have an extra reason to pray."
"The Cold War John F. Kennedy was turning, in the root biblical sense of the word 'turning' -- teshuvah in Hebrew Scriptures, metanoia in the Greek, 'repentance' in English," Douglass writes. "'The military are mad,' President Kennedy told Arthur Schlesinger. Yet as angry as the Chiefs were at Kennedy's handling of the missile crisis, their anger would deepen in the following year."
That anger would deepen over a number of foreign policy issues, and Kennedy had a foreboding about it. He was deeply concerned by the rage expressed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the way the Central Intelligence Agency was surreptitiously bucking him on matters from Cuba to Viet Nam and Laos (even orchestrating terrorist acts, coups, and assassinations to undermine peace talks). On the afternoon of that same October day, with the Cuban crisis over -- in reference to the death of Abraham Lincoln -- Kennedy said to his brother Robert, "This is the night I should go to the theater." (To which Bobby replied -- also prophetically -- "If you go, I want to go with you.")
It is chilling stuff. "In his final months, the president spoke with friends about his own death with a freedom and frequency that shocked them," writes Douglass in a book with 96 pages of footnotes, quoting a biographer who observed that "Kennedy talked a great deal about death, and about the assassination of Lincoln." On a slip of paper, Kennedy had kept a favorite saying from Lincoln: "I know there is a God -- and I see a storm coming. If He has a place for me, I believe that I am ready."
Meanwhile, it turns out that the 1963 papal encyclical Pacem in Terris on universal peace influenced not only the switch toward peace of John Kennedy but also -- astonishingly -- Khrushchev. "I am not religious," the Russian leader had remarked, "but I can tell you I have a great liking for Pope John. There's something very moving about a man like him struggling despite his illness to accomplish such an important goal before he dies." John XXIII died of cancer on June 3, 1963 -- a week before Kennedy gave a groundbreaking speech -- what some say was his best ever -- on peace at American University (a speech that alarmed many in the military-intelligence-industrial complex, about which President Eisenhower had warned).
Kennedy was keenly aware of the possibility of a "coup" in his own country and mentioned that "only God knows just what segment of democracy they would be defending if they overthrew the elected establishment." After the debacle at Bay of Pigs, the President had threatened to "splinter the C.I.A. into a thousand pieces and scatter it into the wind." He seemed to sense danger. Waiting for Mass to begin one Sunday morning, the President turned to reporters sitting behind him and said, "Did you ever stop and think, if anyone tried to take a shot at me, they'd get one of you guys first?"
Referring to assassination, JFK liked to quote Ecclesiastes: "There is a time to be born, and a time to die."
Astoundingly -- as his trip to Dallas approached -- the young president repeated apprehensions about it.
"I hate to go out to Texas," he told Senator George Smathers. "I just hate to go. I have a terrible feeling about going. I wish I could get out of it." The night before leaving his sister-in-law Ethel noticed his grave demeanor and wondered what was wrong.
During the trip, in a hotel in Fort Worth, after reading a threatening newspaper ad by a group that hated him, Douglass says the President turned and said to his wife, "Jackie, if someone wants to shoot me from a window with a rifle, nobody can stop it, so why worry about it? You know," he added, "last night would have been a hell of a night to assassinate a president."
In between stops at Fort Worth and Dallas, there are credible reports that Kennedy had a priest hear his Confession.
The Catholicism he got from his mother Rose -- a devout daily communicant who constantly prayed the Rosary and wanted the family fortune donated to monks in Massachusetts. Although admittedly an imperfect Catholic, the President also seemed to have a mystical link with the famous writer and monk Thomas Merton, who lived in total seclusion (and silence) at a Trappist monastery in Kentucky.
There, the monk had been praying in earnest that Kennedy would turn from hawkishness to peacemaking -- that unlike other politicians he would turn away from shrewdness and craftiness toward compassion and humanity. He even wrote the Kennedy family about it. And he too seemed a prophet.
Wrote Merton on January 18, 1962, to W. H. Ferry: "Kennedy will break through into that someday by miracle. But such people are before long marked out for assassination."